Cabin Fever How Health Seekers Shaped Arizona’s History
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography by Bryan Black
Peering inside of the tubercular cabin at Cave Creek Museum is like looking through a window into history.
A small bed is situated along the right wall while a wooden table and chair rest along the left. The back wall features a meager-looking basin and what appears to be a nightstand surrounded by a few pails, bedpans and other accouterments.
It is difficult to imagine living in such rudimentary conditions, even at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet many people moved to our state for a chance to live exactly like that, and not only survived but thrived as a result—as did Arizona itself.
Cave Creek Museum’s executive director Karrie Porter Brace says that doctors often sent their patients to our state to recover from tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses.
“People came out to Arizona from the cities in the northeast because they were told that the hot, dry air here would help them recover,” Brace says.
Arizona’s official state historian Marshall Trimble adds that tuberculosis was a ravaging disease.
“They had these TB sanctuaries scattered all over the deserts,” Trimble says. “People would just go out and bake in the sun.”
Trimble recounts the story of a tuberculosis sufferer named Minnie Elliott, who moved to Arizona with supposedly only six months to live. A charitable woman, Elliott aspired to make her last days count by teaching hygiene and nutrition to Native Americans of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“They brewed up a concoction of tea out of creosote leaves, fed her that and buried her in the sand of Indian Bend Wash,” Trimble says. “When she went back home to the Midwest to visit her family, they could not find any trace of tuberculosis in her lungs.”
Trimble owes his Arizona residency to the state’s status as a sanctuary for those with respiratory illnesses. In 1918, both of his grandmothers arrived in the Valley with the hope of recovering from breathing conditions. Trimble’s paternal grandmother, an asthma sufferer, left her home along the Rio Grande of Texas for Arizona.
“They told her that she was going to die if she did not get to a dry climate,” Trimble explains. “She arrived in Tempe with four young kids. My dad was the oldest at 10. They got off the train at the Tempe railroad station and there was a man waiting there with a big touring car. He said, ‘You guys look like you need a job.’”
The man drove them out to a cotton camp south of Mesa and they were put to work in the cotton fields. As the days went by, Trimble’s grandmother’s health improved and she lived a long and happy life into the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Trimble’s maternal grandmother—who came to Arizona from Arkansas with tuberculosis—was far less lucky, passing away in 1921.
“We were much affected by [tuberculosis], as were many,” Trimble says.
So many, in fact, that the number of those suffering from respiratory illnesses who moved to the Valley helped Arizona reach the 60,000-person population required for statehood in 1912. However, the draw of such people was not well-received by everyone.
Phoenix did not want to be known as a city of sick people, so in 1903, city lawmakers outlawed the communities of cabins and tents that were used to treat tuberculosis patients. This move pushed health-seekers to the surrounding areas and, in turn, helped bolster those regions.
Sunnyslope and Scottsdale were just two of the communities in Arizona that joined Cave Creek in welcoming “lungers,” as they were called.
Cave Creek’s best-known tuberculosis camp was the Desmount Sanitarium. Opened in 1920 by Sam and Helen Jones, it was located at varying times along Cave Creek Road where The Horny Toad and Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse now sit.
The Desmount Sanitarium consisted of about 16 cabins that sheltered two people each, and were easily moved from location to location. It also had a central facility that offered lavatory and dining facilities.
In 1929—one year after the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin—the Desmount Sanitarium ceased operations. The cabins were hauled away by locals in 1930 and put to other uses, including temporary lodging for men working on the Bartlett and Horseshoe dams until 1938.
Brace adds that there are even rumors that the cabins were at one time used for the less-than-savory services offered by women of easy virtue.
“We cannot confirm or deny it, but Cave Creek has always had a wild reputation,” she says with a laugh. “So you can assume that certain things happened in certain locations.”
One of the cabins eventually ended up behind a restaurant, where a man named Santos Rubira used it as his residence and later a vacation home. In 1990, Rubira donated the cabin to the Cave Creek Museum.
“We put a shelter over it to help preserve it and gave it a coat of paint,” says Brace, noting that volunteers restored the cabin as it would have appeared at the Desmount Sanitarium. “I am currently trying to get the Save America’s Treasures grant for it. The next step would be to actually put it inside of a building with regulated temperature and humidity.”
Museum officials tried for years to have the cabin placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but were repeatedly denied on the grounds that it had been moved from its original site. The objection was eventually set aside based on the argument that it is the last intact tubercular cabin in Arizona. In 2001, the Cave Creek Museum’s tubercular cabin was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Brace says that Arizona and its various communities, including Cave Creek, owe a great deal to the state’s reputation as a safe haven for those with respiratory illnesses. However, she adds that the importation of non-native plant species has since cost Arizona that sanctuary status.
Trimble agrees, noting that his grandmother eventually had to move to Yuma to maintain her respiratory health.
“If it was today, she could not even live there,” he says. “She would have to move to Ajo or some place like that.”
Still, there are many people who came to Arizona seeking refuge and recovery from respiratory ailments who became instrumental in our state’s history, including John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Helen Lincoln and Josephine Williams—mother of Barry Goldwater. It is abundantly clear that tuberculosis and those who suffered from it helped shape our state.
“We may not know a lot of the people who came here with TB and had some kind of influence or brought change to Arizona,” Trimble says.
Cave Creek Museum | 6140 E. Skyline Drive, Cave Creek | $7 | 480-488-2764 | cavecreekmuseum.org